by Craig Knoche
[Wokism argues that] “We live in a system of interlocking oppressions that penalize various identity groups in a society. And all power is zero-sum: you either have power over others or they have power over you.” – Andrew Sullivan
“Get woke” emerged as a watchword among Black Lives Matter activists within Black communities following the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri 1. It meant keeping watch for police brutality, unjust tactics, and deceptions. Since then “woke” has been appropriated by white progressives who retain the meaning of vigilance to authority deception while expressing solidarity with Black language, culture, and social awareness. However, “woke” has also been integrated and fused with concepts adopted from post-modernism, critical theory, and social justice ideologies. To understand the current expanded conception of Wokism one needs to understand its ideological roots.
Wokism’s ancestry began with Post-modernism in the 1950s and 1960s which, between the 1960s and 1980s, fused with Critical Theory and a collectivist egalitarian conception of justice. These in turn spawned numerous sub-ideological disciplines including Critical Race Theory, Gender studies, Feminist Studies, Queer Theory, Disability and Fat Theory, Post-Colonial Theory, and the analytic principle of intersectionality. Together, they fall under the umbrella terms “Wokism”, “Theory”, “Applied post- modernism”, “neo-Marxism”, and “Cultural Marxism” as well as the somewhat derogatory “Identity politics”, “Political correctness”, and “Victimology”.
Post-modernism began with the writings of the French philosophers Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Among their shared core ideas were (a) there is no objective knowledge or truth about anything (aka “The Knowledge Principle”); and (b) knowledge and truth claims are socially constructed by power elites to protect and perpetuate their political and cultural power (aka “The Power Principle”). The power elite, generally regarded as patriarchal white heterosexual affluent males, establish “language games” 2 that define individual societal roles and construct knowledge and truth all in the interest of perpetuating their power. Capitalism and liberalism, morality, religion as well as scientific rationality and objectivity are examples of socially constructed institutional “narratives”, which, in reality, are false manipulations.
“[It is the duty of black liberation theology] to interrogate and unmask the unacknowledged cultural biases and racist, sexist, and classist assumptions of dominant discourse.” – Raphael Warnock
Post-modernism bears a philosophic kinship with Marxism and the French Revolutionary Jacobins in that they all seek to overturn establish institutions and traditions. Capitalism, liberalism, and religion are “problematic” and in need of “deconstruction”, i.e., criticizing and dismantling, so as to reveal their deceptions. Post-modernism also bears a resemblance to the early 20th century ethical theory of Emotivism which asserts that ethical statements are not declarative and, therefore, have no truth value. Rather they are disguised imperative exhortations and expressions of emotion. For example, according to Emotivists, the sentence “It is wrong to steal” should be deconstructed into its true meanings “Don’t steal” (an exhortation) or “I don’t like stealing” (an expression of emotion).
With its denial of objective truth and knowledge, early post-modernism was deeply skeptical 3 and nihilistic. As such, it was primarily descriptive and academic, not activist or seeking change.
Critical Theory emerged between the 1920s and 1930s with the work of members of the Frankfurt School, a group of Marxists who were disillusioned with the failure of capitalist industrialized countries to adopt Marxism. Their explanation for this failure was that elites, through their domination of culture and media, create a false reality (aka “false consciousness”) for the masses thereby convincing them that they are free and happy when in fact they are oppressed and unhappy. Critical Theory then seeks to reveal the alleged facts and techniques of this domination.
Critical Theory retained post-modernism’s views on language, non-objective socially constructed truth of the prevailing institutions, and the need for deconstruction of these institutions. It then added a strident activism to overthrow the elites and replace their institutions with a new normative value system which they asserted to be objectively true and knowable, unlike the prevailing institutions.
The analytic principle of intersectionality was developed by black feminists to explain how individuals that are members of more than one of these segments, e.g., black female lesbian, can experience oppression differently than one who is a member of just one segment. In brief, the methodology is as follows:
- identify and characterize the features of a group considered to be marginalized;
- establish group explanations for all individual experiences thereby creating group identity and solidarity;
- assigns “oppression points” to groups based upon degree of intersectional marginalization, e.g., those considered black receive x points, whereas black and lesbian receive 1.5x points, the greater the oppression point, the greater the moral superiority;
- identify and characterize the features of an oppressor group and enemy (aka “the patriarchy”) and attribute unatonable crimes to that group, crimes that are often ancestral; and
- organize and mobilize the marginalized group to seek retribution for past perceived wrongs. Typical forms of retribution include social and academic banishment and shaming, economic penalties (loss of employment, reparation), and discrimination in education, employment, and withholding of status.
The methodology of intersectionality has been applied to other groups.
The methodology, analytic techniques, and terminology have been adopted by the other sub-disciplines of Theory and applied to other groups considered marginalized. Together, the methodology, techniques, and terminology have come to be known as “identity politics”.
The idea of social justice was first developed in the 1840s by the Jesuit philosopher Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio. While he acknowledged differences in individual natural endowments and societal inequalities, Taparelli sought to provide a defense of human dignity amidst the turmoil of the industrial revolution and the laissez-faire theories of Adam Smith and John Locke. Around the turn of the 19th century, the Baptist minister Walter Rauschenbush, arguably the founder of the great Protestant social gospel movement, expanded the concept of social justice to include six cardinal sins: bigotry, abuse of power, class oppression, groupthink of the vulgar mob, corruption, and militarism. The current conception, which emerged in the early 2000s, adopted all the ancestral notions while dropping God and any theological justifications as unnecessary for spiritual redemption. It shares, with post- modernism and critical theory the beliefs that worldly goods are unjustly distributed due to their usurpation by a dominant class, and that “the Successor Ideology” will rectify the ancient grievances of the oppressed and achieve egalitarian goals through governmental enforced redistribution of economic, social and cultural rights. As such, the present conception of social justice is a form of collectivist and atheistic retributive justice. This ideology abandons hope for a revolutionary proletarian working class replacing it with an amalgamated coalition defined by grievances about race, sex, gender, and to a lesser extent disability and obesity.
In summary, the basic principles of Wokeness include:
- denial of validity to prevailing institutions including liberalism, capitalism, religion, morality, the “privileged” status of science, and other patriarchal white, male, heterosexual identity groups;
- assertion of objective truth of the principles of “Theory” without which it would be difficult to promote adoption of its new normative value system;
- assertion that all disparities in outcomes are the result of institutional systemic oppression of minority groups by a power elite, the latter understood to consist of white, heterosexual males;
- hyper-focus on language deconstruction to reveal the linguistic sources of oppression. This deconstruction begets the concepts of “language violence”, college safe spaces, language policing and “cancel culture”;
- rise of intersectional identity politics with the proliferation of oppressed identity groups replete with assertions of racism, misogyny, colonialism, white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, etc., against the patriarchy and any critics;
- secular yet evangelical-like activism in promotion of this new normative value system; and
- an affinity for Marxist and Socialist egalitarian revolution.
Suggestions for further reading:
Lindsay J, Pluckrose H., Cynical Theories Romano A, A history of “wokeness”
1 For more on the circumstances of this event watch ‘What Killed Michael Brown’, by Shelby Steele
2 For an example of language games cf. “What Language Game Are the Defunders Playing?”
3 The skepticism resembles the skeptical views of Pyrrho of Elis (the founder of Helenistic skepticism), Sextus Empiricus (2nd century AD), Thomas Hobbes (the founder of political skepticism in the 17th century), and Friedrich Nietzsche (19th century AD).